Some teams simply never say die.
The Westborough girls’ volleyball team, 21-2 on the season, clinched its first Division 2 state championship since 2007 on Nov. 18, battling back from two sets down in its third consecutive postseason contest to edge Melrose, 3-2, at Worcester State.
Similar dramatic comeback wins over Medfield in the Division 2 Central final and over Duxbury in a state semifinal established Westborough’s penchant for fighting down to the last point.
But it was a loss to that same Duxbury program in early October that provided the foundation for a team that would become known as the “Cardiac Cats” come state tournament time.
Playing at Duxbury Oct. 3, Westborough earned three shots at a match-winning point in the fifth set, but failed to score, eventually falling, 18-16, in the deciding game to drop the contest, 3-2.
“That was definitely a defining moment in how we learned from it,” said Roger Anderson, Westborough’s coach for 19 years.
With the sting of that close loss fresh in their minds, Anderson and his players went to work on the practice court, simulating similar situations in which the game might be on the line against an elite opponent.
And this fall that preparation paid off, as the Wildcats came back to win the final three sets against both Medfield and Duxbury to advance to the state finals.
“In big moments in the playoffs,’’ Anderson said, “our players swung hard and put the ball away rather than holding back, because we had practiced over and over again what to do with the game on the line. We work on situational volleyball every day in practice and that’s been a big part of our success.”
After falling to Notre Dame Academy, 3-1, in the 2015 state final, Westborough graduated five of six starters.
New faces stepped in last year to help the team make the sectional semis, where they fell to eventual state champion Hopkinton. But the experience garnered during that run proved invaluable, too, said senior captain Emma Smallcomb.
“The way we played in those state tournament games is the same way we practice,’’ said Smallcomb. “At the end of every practice we play a fifth set to prepare ourselves mentally for those big moments — and that’s how we were able to let our experience guide us to those wins.”
In addition to rigorous practices, Anderson made a concerted effort to create a very tough schedule for his team as it pursued a sixth consecutive Midland-Wachusett A League title.
Westborough scrimmaged a Hopkinton team that moved up to Division 2 and made the Division 1 state final this year. The team got over the hump by defeating Notre Dame Academy, 3-1, in September, swept Division 3 state champion Frontier, 3-0, and right before the postseason began, suffered a 3-0 loss to a dominant Division 1 Barnstable program. It was a loss that highlighted team’s remaining vulnerabilities.
‘Our players swung hard and put the ball away rather than holding back, because we had practiced over and over again what to do with the game on the line.’
Battle-tested ahead of the state tournament, the third-seeded team made quick work of Ashland before upsetting second-seeded Medway in the sectional semifinals. Then in a total team effort, Westborough came together for three consecutive dramatic victories.
Along with outside hitters Becky Arena and Lexi Austin, middle hitter Emily Hannon played a key role in those comeback wins.
Anderson also praised the efforts of seniors Jackie Latimer, Mary kate Lehman and Kristin Steudel, who sparked several rallies with her serving ability.
“[Steudel] really changed the momentum of those games with her serving,” said Anderson. “Emily Hannon was able to slow down the opponents’ best hitter and take away their favorite shot, and [Lehman and Latimer] are really the two unsung heroes for us. They’re seemingly always in the right place at the right time.”
For this senior-laden team, going out with a state championship was an exceptional feeling.
“Surreal is the first word that comes to mind,” Arena said after the state title run. “Looking back on it, there were multiple times our season could’ve ended. A lot of it felt like it couldn’t really be happening, and it still hasn’t really hit me yet.”
And while they didn’t necessarily plan for such theatrical wins, the nature of Westborough’s miraculous run supports the program’s commitment to approaching each play with the utmost intensity and purpose.
“We certainly didn’t go in with the intention of giving up [in] the first two games,” Anderson said of those comebacks.
“It wasn’t one play that turned it around,’’ the coach said. “It was consistently relentlessly doing the right thing.
“We began to execute better tactically and played with a calm intensity and a belief that we were going to lay it on the line — no matter what.”Nate Weitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.